Wonder how Jefferson Davis
Feels, down there in Montgomery, about Sumter.
He must be thinking pretty hard and fast,
For he’s an able man, no doubt of that.
We were born less than forty miles apart,
Less than a year apart–he got the start
Of me in age, and raising too, I guess,
In fact, from all you hear about the man,
If you set out to pick one of us two
For President, by birth and folks and schooling,
General raising, training up in office,
I guess you’d pick him, nine times out of ten
And yet, somehow, I’ve got to last him out.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Jefferson Davis, first and last president of the Confederacy, was captured by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia one hundred and fifty years ago. Secretly he is happy about this turn of events. He expects to be tried for treason and looks forward to defending himself on Constitutional grounds. Instead, he will spend two years incarcerated, and then be released on bail, never to have his day in court. He would have the misfortune to survive the War for almost a quarter of a century, and to become involved in many querulous debates with former Confederates who sought to blame him for the loss of the War. Far better for Davis if he had been killed by the Union troopers and died, the martyr of the Lost Cause. Instead, he was fated to endure the worst fate for a loser of a great historical turning point: a long life in which to play the role of scapegoat.
Robert E. Lee I think had it right when he said that he could think of no one who could have done as well as Davis as President. A great man who almost led his nation to victory, Davis had the misfortune to be opposed by a greater man leading a stronger nation. In response to his critics, he produced a two volume turgid defense entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), published, ironically, by a New York publishing house. At 1500 pages it is one of the great unread books of American history, the province of only the most obsessive of Civil War scholars, although Oscar Wilde, strangely enough, proclaimed it a literary masterpiece, although even he admitted that he skimmed the military portions. In recent decades Davis, who had his slaves run his plantation along with their own court system, has been often portrayed as a devil stick figure, as if he had invented slavery, a sort of anti-Lincoln. This is ahistoric rubbish. Davis was a fascinating, and often contradictory, man and the scholarship devoted to him has been sadly lacking. The man who came so close to changing the course of the nation deserves better from the servants of Clio.
T. H. Peabody, a member of the Union cavalry unit that captured Davis gave this account: Continue reading
..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.”
…never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”
Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry
The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack. At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support. By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee. At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day. Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road.
This action by the Texan Brigade, and similar actions on many other fields, caused Lee to treasure the unit as his shock troops. This caused Lee to deny a request by the Governor of Texas in February of 1865. The request and the denial are contained in this letter from Jefferson Davis to the Governor of Texas: Continue reading
Go here to read about the peace initiative of Francis P. Blair who travelled to Richmond to meet with President Davis.
Jefferson Davis was a very shrewd man, much shrewder I think than most historians have given him credit for being. He realized that little could be expected from negotiations with Lincoln because Lincoln would never agree to Confederate independence, the one non-negotiable issue as far as both Lincoln and Davis were concerned. Additionally, he regarded a joint Union Confederate war against the French in Mexico, the core of the Blair initiative, to be a fairly bizarre proposal. However, he was eager to negotiate. The Confederate military situation was beyond dire. If the negotiations led to Confederate independence, victory would be snatched at the last instant. If, as Davis expected, the negotiations led to nothing, he could tell his people that he had attempted negotiations and the Union would not negotiate in good faith, and all that remained was a last ditch struggle to secure on the battlefield what the North would never concede on the negotiating table. Here is the note that he gave to Blair to take back to Lincoln: Continue reading
Ah, Jefferson Davis. During the War he was a devil figure for the North and after the War many Southerners blamed him for their loss. Actually Davis was a highly accomplished man who came close, against all odds, to achieving independence for his new nation. Often regarded as a bloodless pedant, Davis was instead a man who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, for good and ill. A good example of this is the letter he drafted on August 11, 1863 in which he responded to the offer to resign made by General Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Gettysburg defeat:
Richmond, Va., August 11, 1863.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:
Yours of the 8th instant has just been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.
It well became Sydney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit; and yet there has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of the army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of myself should be accepted as the results of honest observation.
Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations, and seek to exalt you for what you had not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come. Continue reading
Continuing on with our examination of the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the first part of which may be read here, we turn to Jefferson Davis and the suspension of habeas corpus in the Confederacy. The Confederate Constitution provided for the suspension of habeas corpus:
Sec. 9 (3) The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.
On February 27, 1862 the Confederate Congress vested in Davis the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. On March 1, 1862 Davis used this power, suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus and declaring martial law in a ten-mile radius around the City of Richmond.
Davis would use this power throughout the War, especially in regions where Unionist sentiment was strong, for example in East Tennessee where martial law was imposed and the writ of habeas corpus suspended in 1862. Continue reading
On November 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis issued a report to the Confederate Congress on the progress of the War. It is a fascinating document. It details how he perceived the War at this early stage. Here is the text of the report, interspersed with comments by me:
Richmond November 18th 1861
The few weeks which have elapsed since your adjournment have brought us so near the close of the year that we are now able to sum up its general results. The retrospect is such as should fill the hearts of our people with gratitude to Providence for His kind interposition in their behalf. Abundant yields have rewarded the labor of the agriculturist, whilst the manufacturing industry of the Confederate States was never so prosperous as now. The necessities of the times have called into existence new branches of manufactures, and given a fresh impulse to the activity of those heretofore in operation. The means of the Confederate States for manufacturing the necessaries and comforts of life within themselves increase as the conflict continues, and we are gradually becoming independent of the rest of the world for the supply of such military stores and munitions as are indispensable for war. The operations of the army soon to be partially interrupted by the approaching winter have afforded a protection to the country, and shed a lustre upon its arms through the trying vicissitudes of more than one arduous campaign, which entitle our brave volunteers to our praise and our gratitude.
The Confederacy would expand its industrial plant enormously during the War, but it could never compete with the industrial might of the Union. The crop of 1861 was indeed bountiful, and it did small good for the Confederacy since Davis had decided on an informal cotton embargo which it was assumed would convince Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy since the British textile industry relied upon cotton from the South. It was a ghastly mistake. With the Union blockade in its infancy, most of the cotton crop of 1861 could have been shipped to Europe and earned much-needed hard currency for the purchase of badly needed supplies and weapons. Instead, what cotton was not used for domestic purposes in the Confederacy in 1861, simply sat in warehouses and on docks. This policy was one of the main blunders of the Davis administration in 1861. Continue reading
Jefferson Davis was always a friend to Catholics. In his youth as a boy he studied at the Saint Thomas School at the Saint Rose Dominican Priory in Washington County Kentucky. While there Davis, the only Protestant student, expressed a desire to convert. One of the priests there advised the boy to wait until he was older and then decide. Davis never converted, but his early exposure to Catholicism left him with a life long respect for the Faith.
When the aptly named anti-Catholic movement the Know-Nothings arose in the 1840s and 1850s, Davis fought against it, as did his great future adversary Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Pope Pius wrote to the archbishops of New Orleans and New York, praying that peace would be restored to America. Davis took this opportunity to write to the Pope:
It has long been an article of faith of many admirers of Jefferson Davis that, while he was in Union captivity after the Civil War, he received a crown of thorns from Pope Pius IX woven by the hands of Pio Nono himself. The Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans has it on display. It is a romantic story and appealing on an emotional level. It is also false. The Pope did send the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text from Matthew 11:28 ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)